Germany after Merkel: This is the duo vying for a spot as the first ever Green chancellor candidate

The Green party are about to do something they’ve never done before. On April 19th, they are going to announce their first ever candidate for Chancellor of Germany. Who are the candidates and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Germany after Merkel: This is the duo vying for a spot as the first ever Green chancellor candidate
Annalena Baerbock (l) and Robert Habeck. dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Since entering the Bundestag for the first time in 1983, the Green party have remained a minor force, only once gathering enough votes to make it into double figures.

In some ways this outsider status has made things easy. The Greens have traditionally struggled with the contradiction between their anti-authoritarian principles and being part of a system of power. For decades, Fundis (fundamentalists) on the left of the party ensured that the Social Democrats were the only acceptable coalition partner.

In the past few years though, that has changed. At the state level they are now involved in 11 governments, mixing and matching with Social Democrats, Free Democrats and even Christian Democrats.

Since 2018 they have been led by a duo from the so-called realo wing – moderates who favour coalition building and compromise over finger wagging and moralism.

Now polling just a few points behind the CDU – and clearly ahead of the Social Democrats – they need to make the ultimate statement of intent – naming the person they want to lead the country.

Co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock will decide between themselves who will run – something the Greens once would have called the Hinterzimmerpolitik (back room policy) of the traditional parties.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Greens to put forward first chancellor candidate

But the leading duo are only distant relatives of the 1,004 delegates who set up the party on a cold January day in 1980 on a programme of anti-capitalism and pacifism.

                                  Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck in March 2021. Photo: DPA

Baerbock, who wasn’t yet born when the Greens wrote their first programme, recently said that she wasn’t opposed to drone warfare as long as the legal framework was sound. Habeck says he supports globalization, just not the type we have right now.

A picture of marital bliss

In contrast to the naked power struggle currently being played out at the top of the conservative CDU/CSU though, the Green leadership do a good job of portraying themselves as disinterested in personal gain.

Habeck told an interviewer last month that “the stronger decision is sometimes the one that means you open the door for someone else”, while he likes to love-bomb his co-leader on Instagram.

Baerbock has conceded that it would be “a little prick to the heart” if she didn’t run, but has never said anything that even the most suspicious journalist could interpret as a veiled barb at Habeck.

The two famously share a desk at the party HQ and have the same office manager who divides up all official engagements between them on an exact 50/50 basis.

This picture of marital bliss makes it almost impossible to tell which of the two will be announced on April 19th as Chancellor candidate.

The soft soul

Just a year ago, almost no one doubted that Habeck was the natural choice.

An author of several books of philosophy and poetry, the 51-year-old is viewed by fans as a modern day Marcus Aurelius – a self-reflective philosopher king who would rule with justice and vision by day, while ruminating on his own weakness by night.

Habeck “goes further than Hannah Arendt” in his commitment to a philosophy of dialogue and “has a special ability to think through the possible effects and side effects of political decisions,” wrote Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a veteran Green politician, in an article in Die Zeit this week that called for the male co-leader to take a crack at the Chancellery.

A recent opinion piece in der Spiegel came to a similar conclusion. “Habeck has turned self-doubt into his political engine. Trying to run the state in this fundamentally different way would both challenge and enrich the machinery of power,” wrote columnist Susanne Beyer.

Watch any interview with Habeck and it is clear that the Greens have something of a gem in modern politics: a man who thinks while he talks and doesn’t just rattle off pre-prepared sound bites.

READ MORE: Greens will replace SPD long term, says pollster

But is a man consumed by “what if?” questions really suitable for the top job in Germany politics, especially at a time of crisis?

Critics suspect that Habeck can flatter to deceive. According to this reading he is a high end Boris Johnson: ultimately a vain man who hides his lack of attention to detail behind lofty and obscure language.

Indeed, Habeck’s self-professed humility jars somewhat with his well documented love of a photo shoot. He has found his natural home on Instagram, a social media platform that allows him to emphasise his natural good looks while avoiding the ruff and tumble of Twitter.

The Lübeck native has a tendency to make unforced errors when trying to score points on policy detail. Recent examples include failing understanding how commuter flat rates work, and misunderstanding the role of the financial regulator.

For his backers, this isn’t a problem. After years of technocratic Merkelism, Germany needs a leader who thinks big rather than gets bogged down in detail, they say.

The political nerd

Baerbock is a different proposition.

She has worked her way up through the party machinery, first acting as a political advisor in Brussels before gaining election to the Bundestag via the list system. A details person, she claims to love the work of thrashing out policy in the party’s internal think tanks.

In interviews, she has a tendency to go very deep into the technical detail of policy choices, while batting away questions she doesn’t feel like answering. Like traditional politicians from the mainstream, she makes a concerted effort to display self-assuredness and calm.

“She’s is the better candidate because she demands more of herself and has a better grasp of the facts,” writes Constanze von Bullion for the Süddeutsche. “She radiates the robust ‘I will’ that Habeck lacks. In an election campaign that will be tough and dirty, her nerve and bite are likely to be more useful than Habeck’s vulnerability.”

READ ALSO: Germany’s Greens propose speed limit on Autobahn if elected

But for fans of politicians with a fragile soul, Baerbock’s attributes are too ordinary.

Her “consciousness of power means she isn’t that different to Markus Söder”, sniffs Spiegel columnist Beyer.

One Green party insider told Die Zeit that “with Annalena we will score between 17 and 19 percent, with Robert we could end up with a result anywhere between 14 percent and 24 percent”.

In other words: the choice is between a safe pair of hands and an engaging but unpredictable visionary.

In the end though, the decisive factor could be one that neither of them can do anything about: the fact that Baerbock is a woman.

The Social Democratic candidate is Olaf Scholz; the CDU/CSU are set to campaign behind either Armin Laschet or Markus Söder. There is enormous pressure for the party of women’ rights to run a female candidate, while party statutes suggest that the female candidate should have priority.

Habeck has hinted that, if his co-leader wants to run, he won’t stand in her way. Whether that is all part of his show or a genuine act of humility, we will soon find out.

This article first appeared in Hochhaus – letter from Berlin, a bi-weekly newsletter on German politics

Member comments

  1. What pretty much any non-Green voter can see, is that both of these personalities are extremely vain and highly self regarding. No suprise there, but don´t try and sell them as any kind of breath of fresh air in German politics. They are not. Almost no one over the age of 50 will vote for them. The crucial demographic in any Developed World national election.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.